The Henley Bridge has spanned the Tennessee River in downtown Knoxville for almost 80 years. Originally a city-taxpayer-funded project, with assistance from the county, the bridge and the widening of Henley Street into what was perceived as a sort of urban boulevard were the most conspicuous fruits of an ambitious, almost heroically progressive plan, led by what was then called the City Planning Commission, to alleviate traffic on Gay Street and re-imagine Knoxville as a modern city.
After a low-tax revolt in suburban areas and the inconvenient arrival of the Great Depression, other improvements, including a major campus-like municipal center and terraced development down to the river, were scrapped. Only the pretty bridge, leading to the boulevard called Henley Street, remained. It was such an appealing locale that Church Street Methodist Church risked confusion by building its major edifice—still one of Knoxville’s greater feats of architecture—on Henley Street, overlooking the new bridge.
The Henley Bridge opened to a starring role in American history. Its completion was coincidental with the soft opening of the brand-new Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When Chapman Highway was the primary route to the nation’s most popular park, the bridge was the critical link. The millions of people who crossed it in its first decade included President Franklin Roosevelt, on the dedication trek to the Smokies.
Like many landmark bridges, it has also been the locus of uncounted suicides, and its underside forms gritty scenes in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree. It may even be mentioned in McCarthy’s geographically vague post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. It’s visible in the background of Suttree’s first-edition photo of McCarthy, which was for a long time the best-known image of the reclusive author.
Though its plaque calls it the “Henley Bridge,” it got the name from the fact it linked to much-older Henley Street, originally a tree-shaded two-lane residential road which was in turn named for Col. David Henley. The Revolutionary War officer from Massachusetts who spent about a decade in Knoxville as a federal agent is best remembered locally for exposing the treasonous international conspiracies of former Gov. William Blount, for whom many things are named.
Three decades after the bridge’s construction, the city renamed the bridge for George Dempster, former mayor and city manager (and inventor of the Dempster Dumpster), who had helped lead the construction project. It had already been known as the “Henley Street Bridge” for years, and the new name never took.
Over the years, the city ceded control of the bridge to the state, which sees it as a link in State Route 33. (In TDOT documents, the bridge is referred to as SR-33.) Bill Lyons, the city’s director of policy development, isn’t sure when it happened, but speculates it was when the interstate was fixed. “Of course, they pick up the tab,” he says. “But every refuge has its price.”